Seven Simple Words

There was a recent dust-up on the social network Facebook, when the legendary author Anne Rice publicly announced that she was giving up on Christianity.  She was giving up because she could no longer stand to listen to people who in the name of Jesus were declaring themselves righteous and declaring others worthy of condemnation. She cited sexual orientation, religion, and place of birth as common fault lines that were particularly troubling.

She would have found the Pharisee in our Gospel lesson from Luke on Sunday also troubling (Luke 18:9-14). It’s hard to imagine a more earnest, conscientious, religious person than the Pharisee. He was committed to spiritual practice, and for all appearances would have made a solid member of our own congregation! But he made a tragic mistake in his religious life–a mistake toxic to authentic spirituality.

The Pharisee “trusted in himself and regarded others with contempt.” It’s not that difficult to find similar attitudes lurking in our own hearts – toward those of another political party, religious tradition, or toward those less fortunate than ourselves, such as the poor and the mentally ill. It may make us feel good to favorably compare ourselves to others but Jesus warns us that it is a dark place to avoid. What we all need when we fail or don’t live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others is not condescension but compassion, not shame but hope.

Jesus tells us that the tax collector, who approached God without self-justification and with humble honesty, was the one who experienced genuine renewal in his relationship with God.  To “live in the truth of who we really are,” as St. Teresa of Avila described humility, is to feel somewhat naked and vulnerable.  But the parable teaches us that such honest self-definition can be quite liberating as well. To accept that we are accepted by God and to trust in the one “whose property is always to have mercy,” is to make a quantum leap in the spiritual life. Honest, heartfelt prayer, Jesus suggests, can be made with just seven simple words, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Based on similar words in Mark 10:47, “The Jesus Prayer,” has been practiced as a breathing prayer within the monasteries of the Eastern Church for centuries.  The simple prayer, “Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner,” became more widely known through the publication of a book written by an unknown Russian author in the late nineteen century.  This book, The Way of the Pilgrim, brought the Jesus Prayer out of the monasteries and into the wider world.  For a good introduction to praying “The Jesus Prayer,” see Frederica Mathewes-Green comprehensive book, “The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God.”

Love Works For Those Who Work At Love

Wedding Party - St. James's Richmond, Virginia

On Saturday, my youngest daughter, Julia and her wonderful fiancé, Aaron, stood before the altar of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, surrounded by family and friends, and made their marriage vows to one another.

I had the privilege of walking Julia down the aisle and presenting her for marriage.  I also gave the homily (in tuxedo and stole) and tried to say something coherent as I stood before her and her beloved at a defining moment for us all.

What I tried to say in the homily is how immensely proud I am of them both as they now work side by side to create a life together, combine two sets of dreams, navigate two extended families and make the daily decisions that are the stuff of life.  I was also profoundly aware of the presence of three surviving spouses within our extended family who fulfilled their marriage vows for more than 50 years.  Present to see and hear the same mutual vows being made by their grandchildren, their quiet witness was not unnoticed.

I included this quote from the author and psychologist David G. Brenner thatin the homily:

“In spite of the trivializing influence of romantic and sentimental views of love in Western culture, love is the strongest force in the universe.  Gravity may hold planets in orbit and nuclear force may hold the atom together, but only love has the power to transform.  Giving and receiving love is at the heart of being human. It is our raison d’être.”

That is so well said.  Marriage is a vocation, as significant and perhaps as demanding as any other sacred vocation we might honor today.  I have tended to be optimistic about the vocation of marriage over the years, but I am not a romanticist, in the sense that I believe marriage is easy or simply what you do after you fall in love with someone.  The tested truth is that there is always hope and expansive room for growth in any marriage.  To be in a vowed relationship with another person requires a willing heart, tough skin, and a robust sense of humility.  We witnessed the seeds of all three in Aaron and Julia’s relationship this weekend and were gently reminded to keep nourishing the soil of our own.  Love works for those who work at love.

Largeness of Soul

St. John Chrysostom of the fourth century wrote:

“Christians are to have a wide and big soul–a largeness of soul that can endure annoyances and difficulties over an extended period of time.”

I think of this quote whenever the current debate on matters of  human sexuality and Christian faith come up in our common life in the Episcopal Church and at Holy Comforter.  Those on the more conservative side need to enlarge their souls by a renewed willingness to honor the image of God in all people and be willing to hear the stories that shape the experience of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Liberals must honor the image of God in conservatives and concede that advocating traditional marriage should not be interpreted as ignorance or homophobia.  The vast majority of Christians do not take extreme positions and share a commitment to orthodox (creedal) faith.  We believe that our perspectives belong within one Anglican Communion.  Large souls are committed to staying at the table while disagreeing about important moral issues.

This Sunday at the adult forum, I will address the topic: “Same Sex Blessings, Ordinations, and Schisms: Where  might ‘Orthodox and Open’ Anglicans stand?”  I’m not interested in rehashing the arguments on both sides of the debate as much as I’m interested in finding a way forward that helps us focus on the essential task of engaging God’s mission in the world today.  We will have a quick review of recent events in the Episcopal Church and reactions from around the Anglican Communion, but the major portion of our time will be given to identifying how we can “enlarge the soul” and build common ground for the future by practicing the gifts of the Anglican tradition I spoke about in my forum last week.

The skill of living in disagreement grounded in the love of Christ is one of those “treasures” woven deeply into the fabric of the Anglican Way.  It is not an easily aquired skill, nor one that we, sadly, consistently apply.  But it is, in my humble opinion, a practice that can “enlarge the soul,” and at the same time, move us forward from our unhappy divisions toward a greater demonstration of God’s loving reign in the midst of our world today (Matthew 7:1-5).